British Columbia

'I didn't know when I applied there were no women': Trailblazing Surrey firefighter retires

In 1992, the Surrey fire department welcomed two new female recruits, the first ever for the department. One of them, Nancy Innes, is now retiring.

Nancy Innes was 1 of the first 2 women to join the city's department in 1992

Nancy Innes was one of two women who joined the Surrey Fire Department in 1992 — the city's first two female firefighters. (Submitted by the Surrey Fire Department)

When Nancy Innes applied to be a firefighter in 1992, she didn't know she would become a trailblazer for the Surrey Fire Department. 

Innes, along with with Isabel Ruediger, who applied at the same time, would become the first ever female firefighters in the city.

"I didn't know when I applied there were no women," Innes told host Gloria Macarenko on CBC's On The Coast

"We thought it was more like the RCMP [which] I think at that time was around five per cent women. But once we started, obviously, we knew that there were no women at that time."

Innes, who had been a professional basketball player and was helping coach at Simon Fraser University, had been looking for a more long-term career. 

She noticed a recruitment poster for firefighting in the athletic department and decided to give it a shot.

After passing the written test, the physical test, a medical exam and an in-person interview, Innes was in.

While the job itself took some getting used to — "we had to learn how to drive the truck and operate the truck and that sort of thing" — there were some other challenges along the way.

"There were no women's locker rooms or bathrooms in the firehalls," Innes said, by way of example. 

Nancy Innes has been a firefighter for 27 years with the Surrey Fire Department. (Submitted by the Surrey Fire Department)

As the years went by, Innes was joined by other women, but she says not a lot of women consider it a career choice.

"I think part of it is just seeing firefighters and fire trucks — you just don't think about it as a little girl," she said. "[And] if you don't ever see it, you're not going to ever think of it."

Part of her work in her later years has been to encourage women to try out firefighting as a career. 

"I don't think women realize how strong they are and what they can do, because they aren't put in those situations," she said. 

"It is a really great career."

Listen to the interview from CBC's On The Coast:

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